Monday, March 28, 2011

10 Steps Towards a Better Vegetable Garden

Step one – Soil test. Yes, this may be getting repetitious for anyone who follows Penn State Extension but getting handle on basics soil fertility is so fundamental that is really needs to be Step One. A Penn State soil test will provide information about soil pH as well as the levels of phosphorus, calcium, magnesium and potassium. These four elements are most likely to be lacking in typical Pennsylvania soils. pH influences the uptake of these nutrients and also influences soil biology. So, don’t guess, soil test. Cost is nine bucks. You can’t beat that. You can download the forms needed at or stop by our office for a pre-addressed “kit’ to submit samples.

Step 2 – Build soil organic matter levels. Organic matter is a soil textural cure-all. Organic matter creates large pore spaces that improves soil aeration. That’s good for root growth. In addition, organic matter increases beneficial biological activity, adds essential nutrients and improves “workability” or tilth of the soil. Manures and compost are the most common ways to add organic matter. Green manure and cover crops, too. Good gardeners never miss a chance to add organic matter and actively seek it. High organic matter levels are probably something all great gardens have in common.

Step 3 – Study the requirements of the crops you grow. Each species that we grow has a unique set of cultural requirements …cold hardiness, heat tolerance, spacing requirements, ideal planting date, optimum harvest time, etc. Seed packets provide the basics. For a more complete story find a good reference such as Vegetable Gardening, a new publication from Penn State.

Step 4 - Study the lives of garden pests. You are not the only one interested in those tomatoes, squash and your first born strawberry. In fact, for many garden pests this is a matter of life and death… shear survival. You will share your production with them. Question is.. how much. Get to know the insects, diseases, weeds and mammals that are sure to take a bite out of your garden. Learn which ones are most likely to take the biggest bite and plan strategies to manage them. In some cases this will be simple. For instance, choosing disease tolerant varieties solves a host of fungal problems. A no-brainer! Cabbage worms… Bt! On the other hand, some pests require so much attention that it may not be worth the battle. Sweet corn worms… I’ll leave that to Farmer Brown to handle. Visit any .edu websites for solid pest management information.

Step 5 - Use insect and disease resistant varieties. We mentioned this in step 4 but it bears repeating. Plant breeders have performed miracles by incorporating natural resistance to key pests in virtually all of the crops we grow. Early blight, late blight, powdery mildew, wilts, rots spots… become minor issues rather than devastating losses for many crops. Take advantage of this free form of pest control!

Step 6 - Mulch, Mulch, Mulch. Both organic and synthetic mulches do wonders for gardens. They conserve moisture, control weeds, moderate soil temperatures, and improve soil quality. Straw, tree leaves, wood chips and many other organic mulches have great uses in the garden. Plastic mulches, in my opinion, are under-used by home gardeners. Heat loving crops such as tomato, eggplant and peppers as well as the vine crops love the heat. Try some. Bio-degradable and paper mulches are also available if that suits you better. Similar results.

Step 7 – Plan and record your garden activities. What was that great bean variety I grew last year? I know I planted 3 kinds of garlic out there, which is which? Are the Japanese beetles going to arrive when we go on vacation? A garden journal or notebook provides useful information and is fun off-season reading.

Step 8 – Try something new each year. How about those floating row covers? Can I really grow onions from seed? Can I plant shallots in the fall? Are figs hardy around here? There is only one sure-fire way to find out. Give it a try. Over time, your experiences become rich garden knowledge.

Step 9 – Start composting. Composting is a simple way to recycle garden and kitchen refuse. Doesn’t need to be elaborate. A simple “heap” of decomposing stuff does the trick. Type the word composting into the search box at for more details.

Step 10 – Read and study a wide range of garden folklore and science-based reports. We garden for pleasure so it’s a great way to explore the unknown, experiment and learn. Garden magazines, blogs and associations of specialists are easy to find. Did you know there was Pennsylvania Nut Growers Association? A garlic newsletter? Several huge tomato tasting events every year within easy driving distance? Subscribe, visit and learn.